FINANCE NEWS: News in focus - A fresh start: the Active Community Unit revamps - The Government has repackaged its voluntary sector agency. Mathew Little looks at what it means this time round

MATHEW LITTLE

It will be outward looking, building partnerships, making things happen. It will be made up of people from outside government as well as inside. And it will raise the profile of the sector within government, providing a channel for the best ideas."

Tony Blair's optimistic prediction for the Active Community Unit (ACU) when it launched in 1999 may not exactly send bells of recognition ringing around the voluntary sector now. In fact, the reputation of the ACU could not, it seems, be at a lower ebb. According to last year's National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) report on the state of the voluntary sector, most regard the ACU as a "disaster".

The unit was accused of "confusion, duplication and creating competition

in its grant making, and failing to engender consistency in relationships between different parts of Whitehall and the sector. The report's author, William Plowden, recommended the abolition of the ACU and its replacement with a more effective agency in the Cabinet Office.

The ACU has not been abolished but it has been relaunched. The Unit has refined its aims and a new director, Helen Edwards, has been appointed.

Unusually for a government policy unit, she is not a career civil servant, but the former chief executive of rehabilitation charity Nacro. The ACU now aims "to promote the development of the voluntary and community sector and encourage people to become actively involved in their communities, particularly in deprived areas.

One of the new roles of the ACU will be to support the work of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit in deprived areas.

The announcement of a new £4.5 million grant stream to enable community groups to recruit outreach workers was the first step in this direction.

The ACU is reaffirming its role as a gateway between the sector and Government, promising to breathe life into the Compact in both central and local Government.

The award of emergency grants totalling £500,000 to councils for voluntary service and volunteer bureaux facing closure because of underfunding was, according to Edwards, an example of the new capacity of the ACU to feed through grassroots concerns in the sector to the higher echelons of the Government.

A refocusing of the ACU's mission can only help to clarify its confused and divided role in both backing flagship volunteering initiatives such as the Experience Corps and supporting the infrastructure of the voluntary sector as a whole, with the latter invariably the loser. A glance at the ACU's strategic grants for 2001 and 2002 reveals the imbalance. The highest grant of £4.5 million - over a third of the total grants given - went to the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, although the charity's Government funding, previously guaranteed by an Act of Parliament, is gradually being reduced by about a million a year.

But volunteering agencies are clearly favoured over organisations supporting the infrastructure of the voluntary sector as a whole - the National Centre for Volunteering received a larger grant than NCVO, for example.

The extent of financial support that the ACU gives to the sector as a whole is a major problem and something new director Edwards will have to address if the relaunch of the ACU is to be a success, says David Tyler, chief executive of community group Community Matters.

"Every year the ACU makes a big noise about the number of voluntary organisations it's funding, but the amount is nowhere near enough and not enough even to keep existing organisations going,

he says. "Community Matters' grant only provides for 35 per cent of our core costs. And some organisations such as the rural voluntary umbrella body ACRE and the Voluntary Arts Network are simply not funded at all."

The ACU also has to prove itself capable of enforcing equitable treatment across government departments and agencies for the voluntary sector. There are some optimistic signs. Home secretary David Blunkett regards the ACU as a key part of his strategy for civic renewal and he fought to keep the ACU within the Home Office. He and Edwards are believed to be close in their thinking on how to strengthen communities.

The ACU also hosts the interdepartmental working group on voluntary-sector issues, which could be a mechanism for enforcing the Compact across government.

The Treasury is also looking at the position of voluntary-sector liaison officers within all government departments as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review and is expected to recommend strengthening their role.

Campbell Robb, director of public policy at NCVO, believes one crucial element of Edwards' role is convincing government departments that it is in their own interest to consult the voluntary sector since they will get better outcomes for government programmes. "It's not just a question of forcing them with a big stick approach, rather pointing out that if you treat the sector well, you will get better results,

he says.

But there are fears that despite a respected voluntary-sector background, Edwards will not have the political clout to make other departments revise their attitude to the voluntary sector. For Colin Rochester, director of the Centre for Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector management at Roehampton University, the ACU is hamstrung by the Government's own indecision over what role it wants the sector to play. "Without a clear idea of what it should be doing, the ACU isn't going to have much chance of creating one,

he says.

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